As I sit in my urban mid-rise, 29 degrees swirling outside and the din of more [bad] world news scrolls on the ticker – I realize that I’m weary. I’m daydreaming of warmer weather, a slower pace, kindness. I want to get back to the roots of humanity – genuine food and conversations. It seems fitting to reminiscence upon, and plan my return to, spring time in Healdsburg, Calif.
Amidst a panorama of lush hills lined with olive and grape varietals, I repose surrounded by faint wafts of lavender, mustard greens and magnolia blossoms. (Someone bottle that scent now, please.) I soak up the last afternoon rays in Haydon Street Inn’s courtyard, savoring their daily wine hour. Today’s favourite is Longboard Vineyards Mavericks Goosechase Vineyard Cabernet (which is a dead tie with their stellar, exceptionally crisp Brut). As I snack on wood-fired pizza, courtesy of John Harasty, co-owner and veteran executive chef of Churchill Downs, I’m acutely aware of winsome flower-draped cottages, refined commercial buildings, the proximity of stellar farm-to-table fare, and the infinite supply of wine awaiting my lips. Thus, three magical days in Healdsburg starts.
Healdsburg is surrounded by several of Northern California’s finest regional wine appellations, including Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, and Russian River Valley but has greater depth of soul than its name brand neighbor down the road. Located a short hour and a half drive from SFO in Sonoma County, Healdsburg is an approachable, serene, verdant town situated centered by a 19th-century plaza. It’s charming and seductive, yet attainable – lacking any pretension. It fosters good conversation and inspires openness. Words cannot accurately convey the magic, but the building blocks of an amazing Healdsburg experience started in a hobbit hole and ended freewheeling through vineyards.
Haydon Street Inn
The aforementioned Haydon Street Inn is a cozy, elegant, comfortable Queen Anne Victorian B&B in walking distance of downtown Healdsburg. I wake, assessing last night’s indulgences: a half-empty bottle of red, The Grass Crown face up by the glowing fireplace and the remnants of a bubble bath in the soaking tub. Platters clink. Wafting scents of house breakfast sausage and bacon pierce my grogginess, calling me hither. I obey to find a delicious, three-course scratch breakfast. Satiated for the hour, attention turns to the open road and the promise of good conversation, good views and – above all – good wine. So many wineries, so little time.
More sleeps: H2hotel, Hotel Healdsburg, Calderwood Inn
Healdsburg is likely the most self-aware region in American wine-making. According to local winemaker, Oded Shakked, the American wine industry largely emulated France and Italy in its infancy. In the 1980’s Sonoma winemakers started deviating from Europe’s methods and started approaching winemaking with more of a sense of place letting nature – 90 percent of the winemaking process – do the talking. Everyone everywhere mentions the sense of place, the bounty around them and their connection with the roots – figuratively and literally.
Trattore Farms. Named after the owner’s [impressive] collection of tractors, the family-operated farm boasts stunning views of grape trellises and olive groves atop a hill in the Russian River Valley. High density and super-high-density plantings combine with traditional orchards sprouting varieties from Spain, Italy, France, Greece and California. It was remarkably easy to sip the morning away sprawled on the generous deck whilst nibbling on oils, charcuterie and baguette. (Worth noting, their artisanal Dry Creek Olive Oil has garnered many wows on dishes at home).
Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves
With sprawling views and rustic caves, Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves won my heart at first sip (a perfect Chardonnay). The family operation is among the loveliest vineyards in Sonoma County, producing limited zinfandel and Rhone varietals vintages. Everything from the story to the wine to the scenery is superb. Don’t miss an opportunity to explore the barrel rooms in the cave which also host elegant club nooks and a tasting room. But don’t stay underground too long, the picturesque view and a stroll with that luscious Chardonnay await you on the sunny hills of the Bella estate.
Down the road, awaits the magnificent Jordan Winery, who boasts the largest property in Sonoma County. Vista Point – the highest point on the 1,200-acre ranch – offers panoramic views of neighboring wine regions and mountain ranges. Classically beautiful Juliet balconies dot flower-draped chateau walls and the veranda boasts lush seating. Recently they’ve launched hiking excursions ranging in difficulty. Three miles of moderately strenuous hiking through hills and valleys overlooking the Alexander Valley is the most beautiful way to earn several glasses of their award winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the only two wines they produce. Not into hiking? Have lunch at the chateau and soak up the beauty around you. (Yes, they do events and, yes, they are glorious).
Food is honest in Healdsburg. Local, sustainable products are a near-ubiquitous philosophy in the kitchens across Healdsburg. Flavors are honest and execution reveals the passion that each chef puts into their dishes. It’s easy to find a great meal – check out Spoon, Valette, Chalkboard, Castreaux, Campo Fina, Scopa, and Oakville Grocery. Don’t miss unforgettable experiences courtesy of Shed and Barn Diva.
Shed (James Beard recipient – Design, 2013) is a beautiful garage housing a marketplace that leaves the locavore weak in the knees. Part market, part community room, part restaurant – the airy space is refined but organically approachable. Like nearly everything in Healdsburg, Shed sources locally and embeds strong sustainable philosophy into their offerings. And, oh, what scrumptious offerings they are. We indulged in Wild Gulf Snapper with Clams, Kale, Cabbage, Cauliflower and an exquisite brassica broth; a delightful asparagus pizza with nettles, shallots, meyer lemon and manchego; a divine farro verde and crema de lardo dish with heirloom beets, sprouting broccoli, bread crumbs and wild mustard; Spanish white anchovies on toast with radishes and lemon aioli; and, carrot salad with Medjool dates, wild pecans, bee pollen and yogurt.
Photos courtesy of Healdsburg.com
Studio Barndiva is possibly the most fabulous place on earth. Subjectively speaking, of course, but the rustic elegance and charm of this revolving art and celebration concept works. Part restaurant, part wine and cocktail lounge, part art studio, and part event space, Barndiva offers refined craft cocktails and elegantly simple bistro food (don’t miss the goat cheese croquettes with wildflower honey and lavender, the roast chicken or the crispy duck confit). One misty afternoon, a few wonderful hours were spent – by myself – on their couch with a book and a steady stream of cocktails, wine, and those croquettes. Lounge in the immaculately eclectic Gallery Bar, letting the fantastic décor and art pieces talk to you (caution, after your second craft cocktail – they might start yelling) as you nosh on delicious small bites. Book your wedding – or birthday – in their hydrangea covered patio (it’s on my short list), or head inside to indulge in lunch, dinner and brunch at their restaurant.
The Tour De Healdsburg
The highlight of the year, and of Healdsburg, goes to Wine Country Bikes ($39/day for bike rental, $139/person guided tour) full-day guided tour. Terry “Tac” Holcomb – our affable guide is immediately likable and heartwarming. His passion flows through every mile wheeled on his bike and when he invites you to tour his Healdsburg, his transparent love for the area is contagious. I could’ve happily cruised around for a week listening to his tales and soaking up his knowledge. (Tac lesson #1: if you like a particular wine, ask to revisit it…more wine for you). He supplied us with laughter, insight and fantastic cheeses which we enjoyed at our first stop Quivira Vineyards and Winery.
Sonoma County is leading the way in sustainable farming and currently has about 20 percent of regional land dedicated to organic farming. Quivira Vineyards, whose owner once ventured out in her nightgown to save a fig tree from being bulldozed, is a certified biodynamic farm producing organic wine. Across their 110-acres, you can find coho and steelhead trout spawning, animals, produce, and – of course – vines. Tip: check out their line of luxurious body products inside.
Martorana Family Winery
Martorana Family Winery, quite possibly California’s best bike stop, is the magical by-product of Sicilian and Piedmont Italian families who came to picnic by the stream prior. Soon after, they purchased the property and started planting vines. Apropos that prime picnic spots now span the grounds. The tasting room is tucked under a hill and looks out over a courtyard destined to steal your afternoon. Play bocce ball next to the babbling Dry Creek or just sit and be with a glass of their 100 percent estate-grown wines, including some fantastic Zinfandels. Tip: stop by Oakville Grocery to grab gourmet sandwiches, salads, cheese, and cookies to enjoy a picnic and a leisurely afternoon.
The last stop on the tour brings you to Longboard Vineyard’s tasting room studded with owner/vintner Oded Shakked’s surfboards. Oded is a walking melting pot – who ventured to Healdsburg after living on four continents (and had aspirations of being a pirate). His personality is reflected in his wines: approachable, robust, profound, refined, and three-dimensional. Expect to have the pleasure of his conversation during your Longboard tasting and don’t miss the chance to take home a bottle of one of the best bruts in the region. Crisp and bright, it is pleasantly dry and positively exquisite. Also, try the 2001 Syrah Russian River Valley ($30) – elegant, mocha kissed tannins play with black fruit for a velvety, elegant finish and medium body flavor. Cab lovers will be surprised by the quality of the Longboard 2010 Mavericks Goosechase Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley) – rich, spicy, complex and approachable, just like the Longboard team.
With their relaxing and honest approach to creature comforts tied harmoniously with the land that sustains them, Healdsburg’s roots wind deep within your soul and call you back, over and over again.
“I felt roots growing from the bottom of my feet.”
– Oded Shakked
To schedule your getaway to Healdsburg, visit Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau to learn more.